Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle Eastby Benjamin ORBACH
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On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Pittsburgh native and graduate student Ben Orbach traveled to the Middle East to experience the region first-hand. Despite having a degree in Middle Eastern studies, he was completely unprepared for what he discovered. Beyond the anti-American sentiment he expected, he found a complex, curious people whose lives were made even more difficult by an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. Live from Jordan is the story, told via his letters home, of Orbach's one year trip through Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, and Turkey. As he begins his unforgettable journey which takes him from bustling bazaars to underground brothels, he meets all kinds of characters: a falafel cook who hates Americans because they "have no mercy," a kindly baker who wishes him "peace and blessings" every time he buys pita bread, and the curious, impassioned 21-year-old medical student with a penchant for debating U.S. foreign policy. From the angry streets of Cairo to the living rooms of ordinary people in Jordan and Palestine, Orbach offers an honest, balanced portrait of a region in turmoil and the vivid, misunderstood, and often welcoming people who inhabit it. With humor and wit, he sheds new light on a culture that few Americans understand. Engaging and evocative, Live from Jordan is a myth-breaking book that combines the lyricism of a travelogue with the insight of reportage.
-American Pundit blog, July 24, 2007
“A funny, poignant trip through [the] Mideast.”
“Orbach's knowledgeable but down-to-earth style is refreshing, and it's a delight to follow him on his 13-month sojourn.”
-National Geographic Traveler Online
“Live from Jordan…is the thoughtful, illuminating, and highly entertaining book debut by Pittsburgh native Benjamin Orbach….an elegantly written, and often hilarious account of Orbach’s prolonged stay in Jordan and Egypt….an intelligent, balanced, and insightful book debut.” Democracy and Security
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Live from JordanLetters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East
By Benjamin Orbach
AMACOMCopyright © 2007 Benjamin Orbach
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHead First, Lost in Amman
July 27, 2002
Imagine walking home from work, a tall foreign-looking man approaches you and asks, "I beg your pardon, my good sir, but I just arrived in your country. And in actuality, I do not possess a place of residence, nor do I possess much currency. Can you please assist me with locating a furnished flat?"
Please don't hurry past or roll up your window—that's me asking the question, and I need help! I don't know anyone, I don't speak the language, I don't know where anything is, and even if I did, I don't know how to get there. Oh, I should also mention that when people find out where I'm from, they want to know whether my country is going to invade the country next door, destroy the local economy, and kill innocent people. My first week in Jordan hasn't quite gone as smoothly as I had hoped.
Classes started at the university, but I spent most of the past week walking the streets of Amman, looking for an apartment. It turns out that the housing market is tight in the summer because rich vacationers from Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar drive on over to enjoy Amman's summer breeze. Amman isn't the Tropicana, but 95 degrees with an evening breeze beats 130-degree temperatures in the still desert.
While all of the Middle East may appear on TV to be a hot and dusty scene out of Ishtar, Jordan really is a desert country. Carved out by the British after World War I as a reward to the Sharif Hussein bin Ali (great-great-grandfather to Jordan's King Abdullah II) for his support against the Turks and the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Jordan lies between the Jordan River to the west, Syria to the north, and the Iraqi and Saudi deserts to the east and south. While the Sharif's third son, Faisal, received the lush Kingdom of Iraq from the British, his second son, Abdullah, received a swath of desert that was called Transjordan at the time. When Abdullah arrived in Amman in 1921, he found his inheritance to be a poor desert country populated by a combination of Bedouin nomads and farmers. Today, Amman is a Middle Eastern hub, and Jordan is a quickly developing country of 5 million people whose literacy rate is greater than 90 percent. In 1921, though, a quarter of a million people inhabited the four districts of Transjordan, and social communities and laws were largely determined by tribal affiliation.
Jordan's growth and history have been marked and complicated by the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. As a result of each war, a wave of Palestinian refugees crossed the Jordan River and took up residence, setting the stage for a contentious relationship between the Bedouin shepherds and farmers on the one hand and the displaced and discontented new arrivals on the other. In 1970, this complicated relationship erupted into civil war. The demographic difficulties of the Jordanian-Palestinian relationship were compounded further in 1991, when Jordan experienced a third major wave of immigration as 300,000 Palestinians and Jordanians were expelled from Persian Gulf countries as retribution for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat siding with Saddam Hussein against Kuwait and Jordan's King Hussein (father of King Abdullah II) remaining neutral in the 1991 Gulf War.
Many of these 300,000 people sent money home regularly and had been a key source of income for Jordanian and Palestinian families in Jordan. In a heartbeat, they went from meal ticket to unemployed uncle and landed jobless in Jordan. At the same time, Jordan lost critical donor support in the Gulf and the West. International isolation and the influx of new refugees put an economic strain on Jordan, a resource-poor country. This economic despair was a key factor in King Hussein's choice to pursue peace with Israel and its accompanying promises of Western financial support.
While I generally find these sorts of political fault lines fascinating, it's finding a place to live that has me most concerned these days. I spend my days walking around, asking people for help, and looking for agencies that rent furnished apartments. Walking isn't the most efficient means of getting about, but I haven't figured out how to take the buses. Theoretically, I could take a cab, but I don't know where I would tell the driver to take me. So, that leaves me trudging through Amman's streets, searching for white signs with red Arabic letters that advertise furnished apartments. These signs stand out against the Amman skyline and beckon me forward, like the flashing lights of the dollar store at a strip mall. I pick my way through side streets and traffic jams, making my way toward the elusive promise of unpacking my bags.
Along the way, I stop people and, in Modern Standard Arabic, ask for help. Though some ignore me, most people are friendly and curious to know who I am, where I've come from, and what I'm doing in Amman. These encounters end in smiles and a friendly point toward another magic place off in the distance that holds the answers to all of my problems. Many times, though, there is more. Yesterday, someone offered to rent me his basement. After a visit to the apartment, I decided to pass; the boiler was in the "living room."
Others have offered their phone numbers and told me to call if I need help. The pay phones here take phone cards, though, not coins. So I bought a phone card the other day and have now memorized the Arabic-speaking operator's message for "the number that you have dialed is not correct; please hang up and try again." There is no reason to believe that people are giving me wrong numbers. Rather, I think I have my own issues as far as figuring out how to use the phone.
My number-two activity, which I frequently get to do while I'm looking for an apartment, is walking up hills. Amman is a bridgeless city of winding roads carved into little hills that I'm always ascending. I thought that walking around with Lonely Planet's travel guide to Jordan would land me an apartment and be the best way to figure out how to get around the city. Either Lonely Planet's maps are the cartographic version of creative writing, or Amman suddenly added more streets in the past year. A tip for aspiring cartographers—details count; include all the streets.
Buses zip past me as I sweat through shirts and walk up Amman's hilly streets, lost. Their existence suggests a reprieve from further uphill exercises in futility, and I long to hail down one of those buses, but I just don't know what to say. Besides, my not knowing the bus routes, I don't have a clue about my own destination. Complicating the problem, if the bus did stop for me, I would probably end up saying something like, "Pardon me, my good man, but will you be embarking on a voyage to the center of this fair metropolis? I desire to travel with you, sir."
Not knowing the Jordanian dialect is definitely a problem. With my Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) grad school training, I can explain in Arabic the impact of globalization on developing countries, but I don't know how to ask for the check at a restaurant. I struggle to express myself in the context of daily needs and everyday life, and my small talk is as fluid as a stuttering Frenchman at an Ebonics convention. I would give all my dry shirts for some sort of magic decoder ring that lets me make the transition from MSA to dialect.
To be fair to my grad school Arabic teachers, most people do understand me when I speak. My words lead to a combination of looks of disbelief, big smiles, and the occasional "you need a shower" face scrunch. My problems actually begin when I stop speaking, have to listen, and am expected to respond. At that point in the conversation, I hit the canvas, lights out, a first-round Mike Tyson knockout—i.e., I don't understand much. As words float by (like butterflies), I ponder whether I've really been studying Arabic continuously for the past two years. And, if so, who decided to drop dialect from the curriculum? Ten out of ten lost white guys in the Middle East agree: bad choice.
At the end of a day of being lost and not understanding the world around me, I retreat to Safeway, the air-conditioned palace that is a cross between Whole Foods and Target, but with an Internet café, too. Back home, the closest thing to Amman's Safeway is the Meijer store, that marvel of Midwestern one-stop shopping where you can fill your cart with fresh pears, cargo shorts, and a chain saw. Unlike the Sunday-morning Meijer crowd, though, the people at Safeway don't have bed-head and aren't wearing sweatpants. Safeway is where Amman's elite go to shop, and they dress for the occasion. Besides the university, it is the only place where I see women walking around unaccompanied by their menfolk or family. In the air-conditioned wonderland of Safeway, I people-watch, browse the aisles for my favorite foods, and check prices. Everything costs a lot less than at home, except for name-brand Western products. Heinz ketchup costs about $6! Not a big concern for me right now, but that's outrageous.
Even better than Safeway—and my favorite thing about Amman so far—is the Nefertiti Hotel, my temporary home. The Nef is a low-budget hotel that caters to Palestinians and Iraqis who have come to Amman for work or to get away from the stresses of life in the West Bank or Iraq. I stumbled upon the Nef during one of my apartment hunts and decided to stay there after Issa, the twenty-five-yearold receptionist and driver, welcomed me warmly. At $12 a night, the hotel is within my price range, and the people there are very friendly. Even better, they don't speak English, which means I can practice my Arabic all the time.
In my short time at the Nef, I've taken on a sort of mascot-like status. Mascot might not be the best description; I'm more like a novelty act than the San Diego Chicken. I'm similar to a street performer that people are inexplicably drawn to for a moment, before moving along about their business. There are so few foreigners here, and the ones that do come generally stay in places like the Hyatt or other luxury chains. So, for the non-elites, and in particular the Iraqis and Palestinians that stay at the Nef, I'm a curiosity: an American who came to Jordan for a year to study Arabic at Jordan University.
When I come home from Safeway, I sit in one of the many chairs of the TV room lobby of the Nef and wait for Issa, his older brother Mohammed, and friends of the neighborhood to stop by and visit. Other guests come and go, sit and watch the news, and pepper me with a sequence of questions that usually include:
"Where are you from?"
"When did you arrive?"
"What are you doing in Jordan?"
"Why are you studying Arabic?"
"What is your religion?"
"What is your asl—your (genealogical) roots?"
This last question may seem odd, but it makes sense here. When I respond and, in kind, ask people where they are from, most declare, "I'm of Palestinian descent, but a Jordanian citizen."
Clearly, they feel the importance of making such a distinction. If they said "Jordanian," then I might think that their family is from Jordan and that they are trying to hide their Palestinian identity, of which they are proud. And if they answered "Palestinian," I might confuse them as someone who doesn't have citizenship. Many of the Palestinian-Jordanians who ask me this question seem eager to recount their own personal stories of injustice and to assert their Palestinian identity. At times, I've felt that I'm asked about my asl solely due to the questioner's nationalistic need to share his own personal narrative, rather than out of real curiosity about my otherness.
It is also possible, however, that by asking me to explain my roots, my new acquaintances are affording me the courtesy of asserting exactly who I am. I don't have to just be an "American"—I can be an Italian-American or a Lebanese-American. In any case, I've had several long conversations about where I am from. Because of my goatee, short dark hair, and choice to come live in the Arab East, most people think that I have an Arab parent. When people hear my name, though, if they are educated, they suspect that I come from Jewish roots. In this regard, Benyamin Netanyahu, Israel's former prime minister, is turning out to be one of the more influential people in my life. "Benyamin" or "Benjamin" has become a well-known Jewish name in the Arab East. Telling people that my name is "Ben" isn't really an option since it means "son" in Arabic and is not a name. Bin Laden means the "son of Laden." So, I introduce myself as "Benja," which is good for confusing the educated and noneducated alike.
Because hostility toward Israel is plainly obvious here, I don't feel comfortable telling people that I meet on the street or at the university that I am Jewish. For the most part, I've told people that I come from a mixed Muslim, Christian, and Jewish background that involves ancestors from Turkey and Poland. This story has gotten complicated at times, and I actually wrote the whole narrative down in my journal to keep it straight. I'm not proud of lying, but I don't want my religion to become the centerpiece for all of my conversations.
In addition to being curious and full of questions about who I am and what I'm doing here, the people at the Nef are incredibly generous. Whenever Issa, Mohammed, or Fayez—a journalist who works nearby—have something to eat, they insist on sharing their meal with me, no matter how hard I protest that I'm not hungry. Frequently, we sit on the patio in front of the hotel and drink tea. A few times, Fayez and others have taken me to a local coffee shop to sit outside in the summer breeze, smoke a water pipe, and drink more tea.
On the patio or at the coffee shop, Fayez, Issa, Mohammed, and others speak with me in MSA, rather than dialect, so that I can understand them. Beyond the oft-repeated basic questions, the hot topics that interest my friends at the Nef are religion and American foreign policy, with a heavy emphasis on Israel and Iraq. Whether it is sitting at a coffee shop with Fayez, a water pipe in hand, or reclining in the passenger seat of the Nef's white Fiat parked in front of the hotel while Issa plays with the radio dial, I am bombarded with questions concerning American foreign policy:
"Why does America confront Iraq?"
"Why does America sell F-16s to Israel to use against the Palestinian people?"
"Why does America condemn Palestinian resistance against Israel but veto United Nations resolutions that condemn Israeli terrorism against Palestinian civilians?"
"Why doesn't America organize an international coalition to expel Israel from occupied Palestine the way it expelled Iraq from occupied Kuwait in 1991?"
"Why does America hate Muslims and wage war against Islam?"
"Why can't Arabs obtain visas to enter the United States? Is it true that Arabs are attacked on the street in America because of September 11?"
Frequently, I feel like an American spokesperson scrambling for answers, seeking to make logical arguments that will make the point that America is not at war with Islam in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is tougher to address. Almost everyone that I've met so far at the Nef, on the street, or at the university identifies themselves as Palestinian in some way. Their parents or grandparents came to Jordan in the 1948, 1967, or 1991 waves of Palestinian immigration. The continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is also a factor in the flow of Palestinians to Jordan. As a result, the majority of the people living in Jordan are Palestinian or of Palestinian ancestry—estimates range to as high as 60 percent of the population. Not surprising, these displaced Palestinians have strong and emotional opinions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, a topic that I'll have to take up in a future letter.
I should probably say something about the university, the reason why I'm here. I've been to a few of my classes so far and already realize that the university setting itself, home to about 30,000 students, is much more interesting than the content of my classes. The campus is the size of a few city blocks, fenced in, and lined with trees. On my first day, I showed the guard my passport, entered the main gate, and stepped into a different universe. Feelings of disorientation have characterized my past week, but I experienced sensory overload at the university; it felt like I was wearing a wool sweater in August.
Excerpted from Live from Jordan by Benjamin Orbach Copyright © 2007 by Benjamin Orbach. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Benjamin Orbach (Washington, DC) currently works at the State Department as an expert on democratic reform issues in the Middle East and North Africa. Prior to joining the State Department, he worked as a research fellow at a think tank in Washington D.C. and as a high school social studies teacher.
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